The Death of Evidence or 2 + 2 = 5

The scientific community is sad to report the death of evidence, which passed away June 18th, 2012, after an over six year battle with Harper government policies. Objective and honest, evidence was heavily involved in all aspects of Canadian prosperity and will be sorely missed by all Canadians, whether they currently realize it or not. 

[From an invitation circulated by organizers of the Death of Evidence rally]

They filed down busy Wellington Street to Parliament Hill in the noon sunshine. More than a thousand people, many carrying signs and wearing white lab coats, escorted a black coffin and the Grim Reaper to mark the Death of Evidence.

This was not your average Ottawa demonstration. Organized by scientists and groups like the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the rally was attended by researchers, graduate students, doctors, lawyers and many people who wanted to speak out against the “new Iron Curtain being drawn between science and society.”

The procession made its way under the empty windows of Stephen Harper’s Langevin Block office, passed the watchful eyes of a dozen police on bicycles and through a narrow opening in the fence around the Hill. The crowd was greeted by a large contingent of white-coated protesters on the stairs in front of the Parliament Buildings. They carried signs that read “I’m not a radical”, “No Science, No Evidence, No Truth, No Democracy” and “Evidence Not Propaganda”. Tourists applauded as they walked by.

The organizers called on the government to reinstate funding to research programmes and institutions that have come under the Conservative knife. They carried a message that seems to be lost on the federal government. That is, you can’t have a properly functioning democracy if the people don’t know what’s going on. And if government can stifle scientists who might talk about things they don’t want talked about — like climate change, like the impacts of the tar sands, like the state of Aboriginal children’s health — then there is no transparency or accountability.

As one speaker noted, evidence is the way adults navigate reality and when governments deal in fantasy “it’s called propaganda.” If anyone doubted the connection, they were reminded of what happened to the Newfoundland cod fishery when political expediency overrode science. The fishery collapsed 20 years ago this month.

The cuts to research and knowledge by the Harper government is wide and deep. A list can be found on the Death of Evidence web site:

  • Scrapping the mandatory long-form census, which the journal Nature argued will lower the quality and raise the cost of information.
  • Ending funding for the Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory in Eureka, Nunavut, which has been tracking ozone depletion, air quality and climate change in the High Arctic since 2005.
  • Cutting the departmental budgets of Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Library and Archives Canada, the National Research Council Canada, Statistics Canada and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
  • Closing the Experimental Lakes Area, a world-renowned research facility in northwestern Ontario.
  • Deciding not to renew the national science advisor
  • Limiting access to federal government scientists, which some have called “muzzling” and which has drawn international attention
  • Ending the National Roundtable on the Economy and Environment

And while Minister of State for Science Technology Gary Goodyear’s office put out a press release extolling the investments in “leading-edge research” made in this year’s budget, many government scientists joined the protest incognito.

The rally reminded me of a recent column by Michael Den Tandt in the Ottawa Citizen. Den Tandt was musing about what Pierre Trudeau —who battled the autocratic former Premier of Quebec Maurice Duplessis long before he entered federal politics — would have thought of the state of the country these days.

Stephen Harper is not Maurice Duplessis. But the call to overlook abuses of democracy, for the sake of economic expediency — which is a never-ending murmur, beneath every move the Harper government now makes — is insidious. It’s not tyranny, nor should it be called that. But some days, you can see tyranny from here.

While Den Tandt is thinking about Trudeau, I’m thinking about George Orwell, who also had some thoughts on tyranny. He would have appreciated one of today’s protest signs: “Evidence based decision making, not decision based evidence making”.

In fact, he wrote about just his approach to governing in 1984:

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?

John Crump is a CCPA research associate and writes on Arctic and global environmental issues.

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